Blackfeet artists Louis Still Smoking and John Pepion are seen with their work in progress at Heart Butte Schools, along with Superintendent Mike Tatsey who commissioned the project.

Anyone who’s been to Heart Butte and gone to the schools will have seen how well the buildings are built into the mountain foothills that surround them. Home to the Warriors, Heart Butte boasts a rich history in culture and athletics, a history that is now being depicted in a series of murals around the main entrance.

“Everyone thinks this is something we’ve needed for a long time,” Superintendent Mike Tatsey said of the project. “They recognize them, and that’s a big thing for the south side.”

Located at the southern tip of the Blackfeet Reservation, Heart Butte lies in Pondera County, unlike their brethren to the north.

So far, Blackfeet artists John Pepion and Louis Still Smoking have completed one mural over the school’s main entrance. With sky tones as a background, portraits of John Spotted Eagle, Arrowtop, Running Crane and Mountain Chief gaze upon those coming and going. The background colors match the sky so perfectly sometimes that many say the faces seem to be hanging in the sky.

The second mural is being done on a sloping surface leading to the entrance, with sunset colors as a background and what will become portraits of Joe and Alice Wild Gun amid stylized horses and between Heart Butte and Chief mountains.

“When I was first here – I’ve been here for three years now – I had funding to be able to put more culture into the schools,” Tatsey said. “I saw that blank wall and I thought, what a neat place for a big mural of our ancestors and leaders. We had an art teacher here from Lewistown, but she wasn’t interested in the project. Then John [Pepion] came to work for us last spring as an art teacher at the high school for the second half of the year. I talked to him, and he got together with Louis and they did their magic.”

John Pepion is renowned for his ledger paintings that also appear on murals and on earrings, blankets and cell phone cases. Louis Still Smoking is from the Reservation, moved to South Dakota, and has returned for the summer.

Besides the two murals, Tatsey said he hopes to complete a third mural on a low wall opposite the slanting wall.

“The goal is to make the schools more Blackfeet so the students will know who their people are,” Tatsey said, noting the framework he uses in creating an environment conducive to learning has four main tenants. The first three are safety, culture and student health and well being. Instruction appears as the last tenant.

“I know it’s funny to hear a Superintendent say this, but the first three things are the most important,” Tatsey said. “I worry the least about instruction because if the first three are attended to, instruction takes care of itself.”

The Superintendent said that since he began focusing on creating a safe and nurturing atmosphere, Heart Butte’s elementary, middle school and high school have all risen above the bottom five percent of the state’s schools in terms of performance. By contrast, most schools on Indian reservations remain in the bottom five percent.

“That’s proof that when kids feel good they will learn,” he said.

The outdoor project is just part of an ongoing plan to expand cultural opportunities and interaction in Heart Butte. The Superintendent said he has a design drawn up for an elders’ center to be located near the front entrance to the schools. “It would be a place where elders could come up and drink coffee and tell kids their stories,” Tatsey said.

Other ideas include a bison-themed playground, with other culturally appropriate features like models of Heart Butte Mountain, tipis and horses.

But in the immediate future, Tatsey said the school will work to create a youth treatment center using an $800,000 grant from the Blackfeet Tribe. While he said it wasn’t as much as he’d asked, nonetheless he plans to look at modular buildings as the funding must be spent by year’s end.

“Being from the community and growing up here and going to school here, the south side often gets left out so it’s great to see this project to involve the community,” Pepion said. “My goal is to get other artists to be doing the same thing because art will uplift the community. It’s good to have the buffalo back and the language and culture, and I look forward to coming out here to work.”

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